Monday, December 17, 2018

Do women and men talk differently?

Wow, what a minefield.

Do they?
well, people in different parts of the USA talk differently....
people of different social classes talk differently....
people of different ages talk differently....
people of different cultures and ethnicities talk differently....

But men and women? After all, there are both women and men in all of the above categories. So it's a fundamentally different question.

Let's say they do. There are anecdotal reports and research studies that suggest differences in:
Vocabulary--Women use words like "cute", words related to traditionally female roles like cooking or sewing (gotta insert the snicker I get when the check out clerk asks "is this a cucumber?"), more emphasizers like "very",  fewer obscenities.  Men use more obscenities, words related to traditional male roles like carpentry or autos, use more common words. And why is it that men seem to have a double meaning for so many words, the second meaning referring to sex? But I digress.

Words about women and men differ, too. Calling a woman a dog and calling a man a dog are quite different--and one is good, the other is most surely not. Words for women include baby animals (kitten, chick), fruit (peach, apple), lots of words related to having multiple partners--bad for women, good for men. The whole "men are assertive, women are aggressive" list, where those words for women are nearly always negative.

What about syntax? Women are said to use more tag questions, ie You'll have some coffee, won't you? More hedges, ie I might is sort of like....  Women use more standard grammar. And of course, everyone believes that women talk more. Ha. Men are more declarative--you'll have coffee, fewer hedges--it is, and more nonstandard sentence structure. And men talk less. HA.

Pronunciation--more standard and formal for women, more informal and nonstandard for men. More varied or melodic for women, less for men.

Conversations among women are said to be more cooperative; among men, more competitive. More supportive, asking questions and confirming as opposed to more attempts to control the conversation.
Women gossip more. Ha. Men never gossip. HA. Women talk about feelings and family and friends; men talk about sports and sex.

And what happens when men and women talk to each other? Great expression--"Women do the interactional shitwork." (Fishman). Ie, women keep the conversation going, support the man, allow him to speak when and how and about what he wants.  Do they talk at cross purposes? When a woman nods and says uh-huh to support the conversation, does the man assume she is agreeing with him? Lots of people can recount communication misunderstandings with a partner; it's not at all unusual or rare. So what is going on? Do women and men speak two different versions of the same language?

Vast generalizations and wide sweeping interpretations are seldom likely to be true. And certainly whatever tendencies we might find have changed over time, as women entered the work force after WWII, after women's liberation, after a few generations of kids growing up with different perspectives.

but still.....doesn't it sometimes feel as though we have a lot more trouble understanding our partners than our peers? (and yes, I am aware that I am not going into gender identity issues, which complicate things even more).

Perhaps there is another explanation? Perhaps it isn't about men and women but about power. Who has more power in our society? Who tends to have more power in our interactions and relationships?
Who tends to be able to control and direct our discourse?

If women are in positions of power over men, do they tend to exhibit the so-called male characteristics above, while men exhibit the so-called female? If I am the teacher and he is the student, do I not speak more authoritatively, control the topic, decide who gets to talk when? If she is the police officer and he is the driver, does not the officer control the interaction? As women have moved into more positions of power, do these characteristics shift?

I believe power differentials are more explanatory than sex or gender. Rarely is one factor able to explain everything, and human interaction and communication are incredibly complex. I'd invite you to become an observer of your and others' conversations and decide what you think.

note: The idea that women talk more than men is often revised to note that women talk more than men think they should.....and gossip is a negative word used for women but men talk about other people in the same ways. We just don't call it gossip.

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